Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to offer a short appreciation of one of our favorite unsung actors, Louis Calhern.
Fans of Fifties MGM movies will immediately identify the distinguished-looking Calhern from his prominent portrayals of some very prominent historical figures — among them, Julius Caesar in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1953 handling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; and justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in John Sturges 1950 drama, The Magnificent Yankee (which won Calhern an best actor Oscar nomination).
In many ways, Calhern was a perfect MGM actor. Having started his career in silents in 1921,the actor had by the Fifties matured into roles of seasoned, dignified authority, perfect as a corporate businessman or professional. He carried the air of an aristocrat.
But we appreciate Calhern most for one role as a less-than-distinguished protagonist — as the criminal gang’s criminal fence-lawyer (Alonzo D. Emmerich) in John Huston’s 1950 noir classic The Asphalt Jungle, the tale of a bungled jewel robbery by an ex-con and a band of low-level criminals.
Huston later wrote in his autobiography, An Open Book, that one of the lines Calhern speaks expresses the theme of the film: Crime is only a left handed form of human endeavor. The director notes that Asphalt included a number of virtuoso performances, and none was more notable, in our view, than Calhern’s.
Huston also noted in his memoir that Asphalt was, of course, where Marilyn Monroe got her start. She plays Calhern’s young, wide-eyed mistress intrigued with jewels and exotic vacations. In our book, she is terrific in the part and every bit Calhern’s match.
Interestingly, although a fan of Calhern’s, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was no fan of The Asphalt Jungle. The picture, he said, is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things. I won’t walk across the room to see something like that.
What makes Calhern’s performance stand out is the way in which he captures the melancholy corruption of the character he plays — the respectable-appearing solicitor charged with fencing the precious jewels heisted from a safe by the criminal gang. The actor perfectly captures the sad ambiguity underneath his character’s hapless predicament caught between mounting bills, an ailing wife and a gorgeous but materially demanding mistress.
Calhern lifts the role into an almost philosophical statement. It’s my whole way of life, his character bemoans. Every time I turn around it cost thousands of dollars. I’ve got to get out. I’ve got to get out from under.
Calhern’s handling of the role is not just one of the finest performances in film noir but one of the finest on film anywhere. The actor died of a heart attack while filming 1956’s The Teahouse of the August Moon in Tokyo, Japan. (Paul Ford took over his role.) Calhern was 61.